Friday, April 14, 2017

162. Manos: The Hands of Fate

162. Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
Director: Harold P. Warren
Writer: Harold P. Warren
From: Pure Terror
Watch: archive.org, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (via Netflix), Rifftrax, Rifftrax Live
A family on vacation takes a wrong turn and ends up at the Valley Lodge, a home owned by the mysterious “Master” and seen over by his servant Torgo.
The movie that there’s very little to say about because its reputation exceeds anything that can be said. One of the contenders for worst movie ever made, it entered the public imagination due to being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 during its fourth season. Since then, it’s become a midnight movie staple and a cult sensation with various theater adaptations being produced.

There’s nothing to be said about the plot because nothing in the movie makes sense. The story of the film is that Warren, an insurance and fertilizer salesman, made the film on a bet, and the result is a train wreck that rivals The Room, Samurai Cop, Birdemic, and the films of Neil Breen for sheer incomprehensibility. I dreaded this movie coming up in the list because I didn’t want to watch it. I ended up going back to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version, and that’s really what I want to talk about.

You don’t need me to tell you about the movie because you already know about it. What’s new, though, is the launch of Mystery Science Theater 3000 Season 11 today on Netflix. I chipped in to the Kickstarter campaign in the winter of 2015 so, as a backer, I got to see a preview of the first episode. So rather than talk about Manos, I’ll briefly mention my thoughts on the reboot and then be on my way.

I have thoughts about the relaunch itself, what they’re aiming to do with the property, and these Kickstarter campaign in general, but that feels like a longer essay about the marketing of nostalgia, returning to the well to try to squeeze out a little more from the fans, and the corrupting effects of branding in general. Though I don’t feel like I’m ready to write that essay yet. It would take some more time than I have right now and my thinking may change as I get to sit down and watch more of the new season.

As for the reboot itself, it’s good, I liked it. The show looks fantastic, I can clearly hear the voice of head writer Elliott Kalen in the riffs (which is to the good since I’m a fan of his sense of humor), and it’s obvious the show is incorporating elements of Cinematic Titanic both in terms of using the entire space of the screen during the riffs and in what’s being done with the films at the end of every episode. That means they’re expanding the idea of what can be done with riffing and learning from how post-MST3k projects engaged with the form. I laughed at a lot of the jokes, thought the cast rose to the occasion, and was really happy with this overall.

There are choices I take issue with. The biggest is that each episode is nearly or exactly 90 minutes long. One of the advantages of being produced for online distribution is you don’t have to edit—the work can be as long as it needs to be. Instead, it’s clear that the movie for the first episode has some significant chunks taken out of it which gives the show the abruptness of MST3k: The Movie. Furthermore, because the episodes are short, the host segments get cut short as well. The first host segment is a rap about monsters which runs as long as it needs to, but every other bit feels really quick and truncated. There is plenty of time for these gags, but the show isn’t using it.

On top of that, there are obvious commercial break moments including show bumpers. Granted, I think the bumpers they have are good and speak to the Saturday morning kid show tradition that MST3k ultimately draws from. Plus, there is the structural challenge of how to move from riffing to a comedy bit without the excuse of a commercial interruption already moving you, visually, into a new format. It’s an interesting stylistic choice that I think works, but only if you’re going to have this on broadcast TV. I think that’s why the bumps are there, so that this season can be sold in syndication if/when Netflix stops carrying it. That seems at once both lazy and greedy, like they’re preparing to be able to sell this in every format they can imagine right now instead of tailoring the show to whatever channel they’re trying to distribute it on.

I almost called the show the “product” there, which is another issue.

Kinga Forrester, the new Mad, is bringing the show back to license and market it in as many ways and on as may platforms as possible. I like that as an idea: we move from the trope of mad scientists doing experiments for nebulous purposes to a megalomaniac intent on revenge and world domination to a marketing person mad with power. The problem with that concept, though, is that’s exactly what Joel is doing. The whole Kickstarter campaign was about bringing MST3k back so they could keep making and selling new episodes. A lot of the messages he sent during production detailed how they were working on the branding angle and asking backers what kind of MST3k-related products we’d like to buy. Would you like a Crow plushie? What about an SOL-based video game? During the post-preview Q&A, he mentioned a comic book coming out from Dark Horse comics.

I don’t get the sense from the show that it has an ironic perspective that it’s making fun of the very thing that it is, that there’s a knowing wink to the fans that part of loving a show is loving the brand and picking up tons of ancillary products. Instead, it feels like it’s all in earnest, that all the effort is about getting as much money as possible from every angle possible. I don’t object to people getting paid, but when is it enough and how much is this show that’s been profoundly influential for me diminished by this effort?

Gee, I wonder what the “long” essay would have looked like.

Bottom line, the show’s good, I’m glad it’s back, and I’m enjoying what I’m seeing on screen. I just wonder why it came back and what they intend to do with it now that it’s here.

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